© 1991 Finn Sivert Nielsen
This essay was originally presented as the introduction to a series of lectures at the University of Oslo in 1991, which was based, largely, on experience during fieldwork in the former Soviet Union (Leningrad, 1978, 1983, etc. cf. Nielsen 1987) and the United States (San Francisco, 1985, 1990). My theme in these lectures was not, however, Americans and Russians as such, but their relevance to a phenomenon I have referred to as the "post-European condition", a set of conceptions of personhood, knowledge, morality, and legitimacy, as well as a practice, the prominence of which has increased on a world-wide basis with the decline of classical European cultural and political hegemony since the late nineteenth century. In the introductory lecture, which is here rendered in something fairly close to its original form, I discussed the historical genesis of classical European notions of self and society, and explored a series of metaphors and models that may aid us in our understanding of the consequences for the world of the weakening of these notions in our own age. This is the process Spengler referred to as Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-22), that French semioticians and postmodernists have heralded as 'hyper reality' and 'the death of the Grand Narrative', indeed, perhaps this is what Marx astutely foresaw, but mistook for "Communism". As these examples imply, the present essay is not a discussion of 'postmodernism' per se, since this term, as it is usually used, refers to more a recent, predominantly ideological trend, starting no earlier than after the Second World War, and perhaps, according to some authorities, even as late as in the 1980s. The transitional period I am dealing with here goes further back, and its dominant figures are the global, socio-economic convulsions that have been changing the world at uneven, but accelerating rates throughout the last hundred years. In this period, the world has undergone a radical transformation that shows no signs of slowing down, and it is against the background of this global movement that the changes in individuals and their mentalities must be seen. The individual seems smaller in an ever-expanding world, but what happens to it has a very real existential impact on us, who are ourselves individuals.
San Francisco - 1990
I shall start my discussion with two texts, both of which I discovered on the street in San Francisco while doing fieldwork there in 1990. The first is from a late nineteenth century plaque erected in memory of Robert Lewis Stevenson; the second was a hand-written notice pasted up, presumably, by its unknown author - presumably a young man. The distance in time between these two events is some 90-100 years, and may serve as an emblematic metaphor of the individual's changing place in public discourse during this period:
|To Remember Robert Lewis Stevenson|
|To be honest, to be kind - to earn a little, to spend a little less - to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence - to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered - to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation - above all on the same grim condition to keep friends with himself, here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.|
|To Whom it May Concern|
Maybe you're not to blame
Obviously, we cannot draw conclusions about major transitions in world history on the basis of these two fragments. But it may be an interesting exercise to contemplate the contrast between them, as local symptoms of the global changes taking place. We could start by considering the two authors' choice of words: on the one hand "delicacy", on the other "shame"; on the one hand "fortitude", on the other "blame". One text encourages us to "accept the grim condition" and continue life in spite of it, the other confronts us with a "gnawing dog of nerves". There is a deep-seated difference in moral orientation toward the world in the two cases. The Stevenson memorial turns outward toward the community. It is impersonal and neutral. It uses no personal pronouns except "him" and "one". The modern notice uses "I" and "you". Its unnamed author turns inward, to his subjectivity and emotions, whilst his anonymous Victorian counterpart addresses the objective social realities surrounding him. In both cases, a challenge is recognized, if not confronted: the memorial points out the "necessary renouncement" that the Self must make in order to realize the ideals of "delicacy", "fortitude", and acceptance of "the grim condition"; the poster turns away from the Other's "necessary cruelty".
Necessity is the challenge of both texts. But while the nineteenth century author responds to it by developing and disciplining the Self, his modern counterpart sees it as an intrusion, an external imposition on the Self from without. Their differing attitudes toward externalities thus correspond to differing perceptions of the Self: on the one hand we see a classical European bourgeois subject with firmly established boundaries, on the other, a post-European subject whose boundaries feel threatened and compromised. And while the first takes care to remind us of the importance of keeping "friends with himself", the second seems unable to do so, and is overwhelmed by "consuming need".
The memorial prompts us to be "honest", to "keep a few friends". Moderation is a key word. The contemporary writer considers himself "naked", "a public view crying at your secret part". He confronts the world alone, he cannot protect himself against it; he neither has limits for what he projects onto the world, nor for what the world is allowed to project onto him.
We might summarize these changes as follows. We start out a hundred years ago with the ideal of a Self surrounded by secure and consistent boundaries, a private Self, whose integrity was safeguarded by the public world around it, and who in return participated in the discourse of the public domain as a responsible and loyal citizen. In the course of the transition we have gone through since then, the Self's boundaries have been eroded and violated by the world. The public sphere has broken its "treaty" with the individual, who in turn abandoned his loyalty to the group and his willingness to observe "moderation in all things". We no longer accept "the grim condition" and all it entails. And as a result, we feel free to let loose our subjectivity on the world. We have gone from moderation to excess. Ours is an age of (among other things) moral and emotional exaggeration. The barriers are down, nothing matters anymore, "it's all the same fuckin’ world anyway". We pour ourselves out into it, and the world pours back into us unchecked.
A relationship of trust has been broken, a sense of equilibrium lost: between the Self and its surroundings, privacy and the public sphere, body-internal and body-external fields of attention. The Self has been made vulnerable; its integrity dissolves and fragments unpredictably. What was once an "in-dividual", a unified whole, has become a "dividual", separable into its constituent parts.
This play on words is derived from an article by MacKim Marriott (1976), which (following Dumont, more or less) contrasts Hindu and Western attitudes to action, morality, and subjectivity. Marriott argues that the classical Western ideal of the Self implies its indivisibility; and its primary moral imperatives revolve around responsible control over what the subject externalizes into the world. Hindu culture, in contrast, sees the individual as divisible, as fundamentally vulnerable to external influences. The Self, here, is an ephemeral aggregate maintained by the world for a limited period of time and will ultimately dissolve back into it. The dominant themes of Hindu morality thus emphasize control of the world's input into the Self. Western morality is action-oriented and goal-seeking, Hindu morality contemplative and receptive. This, according to Marriott, is why rules of purity and pollution play such an important role in Hindu culture: the Self is conscious of its need for self-protection, its need to maintain the precarious boundaries that limit and control its internalization of the external world. Such boundaries are taken for granted by the classical Westerner.
This contrast cannot simply be transposed onto the two texts we are discussing, none of which is even remotely Hindu in its basic sentiment. Still, it is tempting to think of the modern text as in some sense located midways between classical European and Hindu mentalities. It is as if its author has acquired a receptive sensibility similar to that of Hinduism, without the skills and resources needed to control the resulting influx. He has lost his secure boundaries, but does not know how to "sift" the vast bandwidth of influences this opens up for.
We may therefore formulate a hypothesis in the form of a question. May the contrast between these two texts be read as a local sign of global change? Are we, in other words, undergoing a paradigmatic transformation in the West? But this question cannot be answered at all without first gaining an understanding of what a "paradigmatic" social transformation would entail.
On the surface this problem seems simple enough. As a preliminary model we might consider Thomas Kuhn's (1962) theory of paradigmatic transformations in science: a complex system of thought presaged on a simple primary postulate or fundamental principle may change radically in all its implications if the axiom is shifted even slightly. The classical example is Galilei's discovery of heliocentric cosmology. If one assumes that the Earth stands at the center of the universe, the planets will be seen to move in complex and irregular orbits around us. The effect is decorative, but frustratingly difficult to get a grip on. When the paradigm is changed and the Sun moved to the center, these convoluted orbits are at one stroke resolved into simple, regular circles. A key has been found. The situation suddenly seems accessible, amenable to generalization and the formulation of abstract laws. Of course, modern physics has since shown that the universe has no center, so you might with equal justification consider Oshkosh the center as the Sun; and in this sense it might be argued that the geocentric astronomers were actually closer to the truth than Galilei, since the arbitrariness of their choice was explicitly a matter of belief.
This exemplifies a paradigmatic transformation. Within anthropology we might consider the transition from British functionalism to actor-oriented theories as an example of a similar kind. The structural functionalists asserted that human beings are governed by moral "norms" and juridical "laws". This may be considered their paradigm of social action. When people broke the laws and acted against their "legal nature", this represented a paradox that was either ignored (Radcliffe-Brown), or given extensive theoretical treatment (Evans-Pritchard). The methodological individualists, in contrast, assumed that action is pragmatic and governed by choice, and replaced the juridical vocabulary with metaphors from economics. Infractions against the rules were no longer a dilemma, indeed, the central question was now why people bothered to obey the rules at all. A paradigmatic shift in the abstract conception of social action thus had consequences for the concrete, empirical questions posed, the way they were answered, and the conclusions drawn for society as a whole.
The problem with these examples, however, is that they are exclusively concerned with the cognitive sphere. They describe changes in what we think about the world, rather than in how we interact with it in practice. They give no idea of how the body or the environment are influenced by radical change, and they may therefore lead us to underestimate the comprehensiveness, the sheer violence involved in major social transformations.
I shall recount an experience I had many years ago, that may serve to indicate some of the depth and complexity that a paradigmatic transformation of society may entail. A friend and I were standing in front of a large apartment complex in Oslo, a twenty-five-story, white slab of functionalism, dotted with tiny, cubiform balconies across its immense, featureless extent. While we stood there discussing the view, we both suddenly saw that the whole vast, ugly building could be "turned inside-out" visually, so the balconies seemed like little cubicles recessed into the wall rather than boxes jutting out from it. This is a simple trick that anyone with a little patience can emulate. If you draw a three-dimensional cube on a sheet of paper, following the rules of linear perspective, the resulting shape may with equal justification be seen as pointing into the paper and as pointing out of it. If you concentrate attentively on the bricks jutting out of the wall of this auditorium, you may suddenly see them as hollows facing into it. But while the line drawing is inverted easily and with no side effects, the real bricks cast shadows, and the inversion therefore forces us to conclude that the light-source in the room is closer to the floor than to the ceiling. The mind, however, knows perfectly well where the light-source is. It therefore resists the inversion and attempts to cancel it out as irrelevant and misleading.
When such a transposition of perspective is attempted in front of a large and dominating building, however, it is not only the orientation of the balconies and their shadows that are affected. If the illusion is maintained (which may be difficult!), you are forced to reassess the scene before you in its entirety. If the balconies turn inward, then the external corner of the building itself must turn inward: the house is no longer a closed box seen from without, but twin walls reaching out toward us from an internal corner. Moreover, tall objects seen from below appear to taper toward the top. But if the corner of the building faces away from us rather than toward us, it follows that the tapering we see is too small, since the outer edges of the walls are now assumed to be closer to us than the corner itself. This contradiction can only be resolved by assuming that the top of the walls is closer to us than the bottom, i.e. the building is not vertical at all, but slants inward toward us at an awe-inspiring forty-five degree angle. All of these conclusions are drawn in a single instant by the mind, since we have changed the underlying paradigm of our visual impression. All at once, the great block of concrete turns inside out, falls toward us, and remains, absurdly hanging, for however long you succeed in maintaining the illusion, like an enormous cardboard stage set. The experience, in short, is overwhelming, and as long as the illusion holds, completely convincing. As visual impressions, both interpretations of the building are equally logical and consistent; indeed, from a purely geometrical perspective, it is arbitrary to prefer one over the other. It is just because we know that this is a solid, vertical building and not a hanging sheet of cardboard (just as we know that the train is moving and not the platform), that we accept one perception and reject the other.
This inversion is a paradigmatic transformation. An insignificant perceptual detail was altered (the orientation of the balconies), and this forced a reassessment of the entire visual field. Indeed, if it were possible to go about one's daily business without relinquishing the alternative view, the entire world would change fundamentally: every concavity would turn convex, grass would grow inward into the ground, the body itself might seem to be hollowed out of the world, rather than a bud-like extrusion on it. All this was implicit in the experience my friend and I had, and this was why the emotional impact was so staggering. The whole body reacted instinctively to it, reorienting itself, preparing for a new world with new laws. And in this reaction we start to sense some of the true force inherent in any real - social - paradigmatic shift.
While I did fieldwork in San Francisco I followed courses in Tai Chi with one of the most experienced teachers in the United States. He had spent ten years in China studying with several great masters and had thoroughly assimilated the philosophy of Tai Chi. He often discussed with us the difference between Western and Chinese body consciousness: in Tai Chi, the front of the body, with the stomach and chest, is kept soft and yielding, while the back stays resilient and hard. The Western ideal is opposite: the stomach is pulled in and the chest expanded to form a "hard front", while the spine is contorted and bent - which, my teacher would say, is why so many Westerners have stomach troubles and bad backs.
Teaching Chinese body consciousness to a Westerner implies a paradigmatic cultural transition. Cultural paradigms, we shall assume, are imprinted on the body. The paradigm is not a category of logic but of biology. Memory, as Paul Connerton (1989) points out, is contained in the body, and in the natural and architectural environments surrounding it. This is why paradigmatic social transformations are so violent and hard to control.
Often, when such questions are discussed in anthropology, one is left with the impression that it's all a question of logic, of flipping digital switches that offer no real resistance to change. Nothing could be more wrong. Social transformations involve our relationship to the world in its entirety: a Chinese who has grown up with his culture's body-consciousness will not only move differently from a Westerner, but think and feel differently.
History and the Body
These considerations should be kept in mind when we turn to the discussion of history. It is not uncommon to speak of major historical changes as paradigmatic shifts; this, for example, is what Marx does (though he does not, of course, use the word) in his theory of social revolution: slow, gradual changes build up throughout society until their accumulated pressures are released in cataclysmic social restructuring. The violence that such movements entail is implicit in their effects on the physical environment. The Russian Revolution is a case in point: without nearly a decade of international and civil war, it would never have succeeded, since these convulsions effectively destroyed the physical infrastructure of the ancient régime, thus allowing a new infrastructure, and a new social order, to be erected on the ruins of the old.
But the examples discussed above add a dimension to the Marxian understanding of paradigmatic change. They hint that no matter how violent the social transformation, some things do not change, or change very slowly, over many generations. A revolution cannot be considered a complete paradigmatic shift until it has changed body consciousness, our most intimate and deeply internalized attitudes to ourselves as physical beings. And paradoxical though it may seem, the body exerts more stubborn resistance to change than the environment. Each generation transmits its body consciousness to its children at a very early stage in life and, once established, this habitus (Bourdieu) restructures the body's anatomy and physiology in irreversible ways (see e.g. Berlin and Kay 1969). When speaking of history we may therefore assume, with Marx, that tensions build up through time, are released, and start building up again toward a new release. But we must remind ourselves that in every release a stratum of culture remains 'embedded' in the body, untouched (and perhaps untouchable), by change. If we think of history as a series of gradual tension-building processes and sudden releases, we must therefore expect that each period of change will leave a residue in the body, in consciousness, in culture. Over the centuries, such 'embedded strata' of past experience may be eroded and weakened, merging with other strata into a diffuse and undifferentiated substratum; but it seems unlikely, even then, that the millennia would ever erase every trace of them.
We carry a layered residue of 'embedded history' within us. As we delve deeper into its strata, their meaning and content become progressively more abstract and inaccessible to the discourse of waking consciousness, grading finally, at some point, into the nearly "instinctual" (we might almost say) though the attitudes they represent are obviously learned rather than inborn. This is easily seen if we consider personal history: as Freud pointed out, early childhood forms a residue in the adult, even if most of its events can no longer be consciously recalled. I shall posit that cultural history is embedded in us in a similar way. If this hypothesis is accepted it would seem possible, under propitious circumstances, for present-day actors to access these cultural substrata and draw power from them. When such a course of action is pursued, by a psychoanalyst seeking to tap the power of the personal past, or by Hitler tapping the force of the European Middle Ages, access may be gained to vast, doxic (or 'archetypical' in Jung's terms) forces, which an actor may attempt to master, but which often end up mastering him. This statement must not be misunderstood. It is never our actual, historical childhood, nor the historical reality of the Middle Ages that is tapped, but a kind of imprint or trace of what was once real, which is 'embedded', in a complexly transformed, decomposed, compressed, and abstracted state, in the physical and emotional configuration of the body, but which still, in its abstract structure, maintains an emotional link to the past from which it originally sprang.
There are two reasons why I emphasize these points. First, because it is important, in any discussion of Western individualism, to remember that the individual is not an abstract, geometrical center, a "concept of individuality" with simple definitory characteristics, a line-drawing on a sheet of paper that may be inverted without further consequences. The Western individual is a complex aggregate that has evolved and aggregated slowly through the centuries, upon which many historical epochs have embedded their imprint. Secondly, the discussion above brings out why history, despite the fact that it is not "present here and now", is important for us as social scientists and human beings. History is not important because certain events have actually taken place at some point in time, nor (primarily) because these 'absent' events may be interpreted ideologically in various ways today (an argument repeated by many contemporary anthropologists). History is important because its traces live on in us in the present as concrete, forceful, bodily realities.
We must therefore distinguish between historical themes and phenomena that do not change, or change very slowly with the passage of time, and other factors that change quickly and dramatically. The Western individual, in this perspective, has a composite nature. Some parts of its makeup have remained constant through many centuries, others have undergone rapid change. Many misunderstandings arise because this point is ignored. At times, for example, the Western individual is said to have arisen during the Victorian age, as a response to the Industrial Revolution; other times, its origin is traced back to the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Early Middle Ages, or even Classical Greece. Often, indeed, the ancient Greeks are simply equated with the nineteenth century capitalists, which allows us to explain Capitalism by means of the ancient Greeks, or the ancient Greeks by means of Capitalism, none of which is particularly edifying. But it no less misleading to ignore continuity. The continuities and discontinuities of history are interwoven in complex, interleaving patterns that reverberate unpredictably into the everyday reality of the present.
I shall start by emphasizing some long-term continuities in Western history, and later go on to discuss the changes that these continuities are undergoing in our own age. Let us first return to the problem of locating the center of the Cosmos. This problem, I suggest, is typically European. Galilei transposed the center from Earth to Sun, and nothing has been the same ever since. But we must recall why this transposition seemed necessary to start with: without it, planetary motion would have been messy and inconsistent, and the Cosmos inelegant. To Galilei, a clumsy God was intolerable. He wanted God to be a logician. He wanted God to prefer predictable planets. This is why the Sun had to be at the center. To Chinese astronomers that were Galilei's contemporaries this problem seems never to have occurred: with better instruments and better astronomical data, they saw no need to revise their cosmology because of petty irregularities of planetary motion. According to Nakayama (1973, pp.143-44), they accepted this complexity with the laconic quip that "even the heavens can occasionally go astray". Galilei would have found that idea sacrilegious.
What does this difference mean? What prompts the educated European mind to assume that it inhabits a Universe that is logical, elegant, and consistent? I shall argue that the underlying rationality of this misconception centers on a specific kind of cognitive dualism that has dominated European thought from the start. In our intellectual habits, we assume that statements must either be true or false, moral choices either right or wrong, the world either in one state or another; and in the West all these dualities are thought of as intrinsically connected. If something is true empirically, theoretically, scientifically, then it must also be morally true. God set the planets in motion, and God does not indulge in whimsical curlicues without due reason: that is not his nature. It is empirically true that the Sun is at the center because it is morally true. In Europe, order is a category of ethics.
Occam's Razor, the principle of parsimony, is an underlying postulate of most Western scientific and esthetical thought: if we have a choice between two explanations or expressions, we should prefer the simplest, other things being equal. Complexity, it follows, is an attribute of reality that is irrelevant to its inner nature, which should be eliminated as far as possible, from our explanations. Occam's Razor states that the world is in principle simple, elegant, consistent; and the only reason given for this assumption is that God, or the Laws of Nature, or Good Taste, Decency, and Common Sense, demand that the world should be that way.
The classical Western mind thus divides the world into the consistent and the disorderly, into what can be explained in terms of cause and effect, and everything else, which is chaos, redundancy, garbage, dross. We should note that it is not dualism in itself that is uniquely European. Dualistic cosmologies of various kinds are common cross-culturally: the Chinese, for example, split the world into Yin and Yang - light and darkness, male and female, the Creative and the Receptive. The difference between this dualism and its Western counterpart is that duality in the West is seen as pure opposition, as a totalizing either-or, that is simultaneously empirical, moral, and esthetical. Yin and Yang spin round each other: the essential point is not to choose between them, but to allow them to mingle in the right proportions at the right moment in time. This is clearly brought out e.g. in the I Ching, an ancient work of oracular philosophy, to which, among others, Confucius is said to have contributed. The book is built up around descriptions and commentaries on 64 different types of interrelations between Yin and Yang and the transitions between them; which are considered relevant moral and practical guidelines for action in various life situations (Wilhelm 1943, 1950). Such nuanced diversity of moral choice has never been accepted in the West: our dualities are pure, we choose either Truth, Good, and Consistency, or Falsehood, Evil, and Muddleheadedness.
My hypothesis is that this ideal of pure dualism has been a constant in Western culture, ever since Europe originated as a culture-area in the Early Middle Ages. Furthermore, I shall posit, in view of the discussion above, that this dualism is not simply conceptual and logical, but physical and bodily, it is a holistic style of comportment that influences the form of every activity in which we engage.
The Berlin Wall
A suggestive example of what this may entail is the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall is (or rather was) in many ways a fitting icon of Europe itself, an object of meditation, which we may immerse ourselves in and from which we may learn many subtle truths about our own culture. Consider for example that on one side the Wall was covered with colorful, personal, and often rebellious graffiti; while the other side was utterly featureless, anonymous, white. One side of the Wall was a showcase, the other ignored, as if it did not exist. The worlds separated by the Wall also differed suggestively. On its colorful, Western side, every trace of the Second World War was washed away: only a few formal monuments, a few neat and well-kept ruins, remained. East of the Wall, in contrast, the sidewalks were still potmarked by shrapnel, entire city blocks remained as if the bombings had come to an end only yesterday. Here the War was tangibly present, there it was denied and gone. In the West, the Wall was a tourist attraction. Observation towers were erected at intervals, which one could climb to peer across the divide into the Other World; there were guided tours, postcards for sale, and so on. In the East, the inversion was complete: even city maps showed nothing but a blank Terra Incognita beyond the non-existent Staatsgrenze.
There are many intriguing aspects of the Wall that we could discuss, but I would like to concentrate on one insignificant detail that is rarely remarked on. Once, several years ago, I climbed an observation tower on the Western side and looked down into the no-man's land separating the Eastern from the Western Wall. Below me stretched a wide, green expanse of lawn, covering invisible land-mines, and I could see machine-gun emplacements on top of Eastern observation towers that were not for tourists. As I stood there, I noticed some tiny gray dots moving around in the middle of the deceitfully peaceful greensward; and I realized, with a shock, that they were rabbits... Obviously, I told myself, they were there to keep the grass down; they had a simple and useful function; that was all. Still, the image continued to haunt me as somehow significant.
I have often wondered why these little animals made such an impression, and I would now like to suggest a reason. Pure dualism is fine as an ideal. It is encouraging and comforting to separate East and West and proclaim that "ne'er the twain shall meet". But no matter how we purify such differences, no matter how we disinfect and polish the boundary between our categories, the clarity of distinction that we seek must continue to elude us. There is always something moving in between. The pure dualisms that Europe has always pursued do not exist in nature. There are always rabbits on the loose in the space between (cf. Latour 1991).
Perhaps the strangest thing about this boundary zone between the walls is that on the one hand it's terribly dangerous; there are machine guns, dogs and mines. But on the other hand, the same space exerts a ghostly attraction on us; like all liminal zones it has the almost mystical quality of an uninhabited space, in which the simultaneous presence of lush virginity and violent death is implicit at every step. This paradox is reflected in Andrey Tarkovsky's film Stalker, which describes a cordoned-off "zone" that is the most dangerous place on earth, but also the only place where life is truly worth living. Similarly, in Wim Wenders' film The Wings of Desire: when the floating angel above Berlin is incarnated as a man, he first materializes between the Walls, which would seem to imply that this is where the dimension inhabited by angels intersects with the human world.
On the one hand, we idealize pure dualism. On the other hand, we are always and unavoidably faced by the space between whatever the dualism separates. The digital purity of distinction that we seek is always in actuality a zone of exchange: this cannot be eliminated, no matter how meticulously we define our categories or refine our taxonomic schemes. Furthermore, it is in this boundary zone, in the space between, that the seeds of historical change lie latent. This is where the new is constantly appearing; at the fuzzy points of logic, at the boundaries of moral dilemma. Europe has always tried to wipe this impurity away: to civilize the barbarians and straighten the planetary orbits, to classify and categorize, assign unconditional weight and priority. But no matter how diligently our distinctions are cleansed, they constantly open up again, revealing new dilemmas, new questions, new gray dots that turn out to be rabbits. Each time this happens, things change. But the ideal of pure dualism itself remains. And the search for it continues.
We have now arrived at a schematic way of describing the continuities of Western history: the dualism; the space between; and the element of change, the restless, hidden creativity seeking an outlet, that suddenly breaks forth and breeds: not an alternative to dualism, but a new variation over the old dualistic theme. The driving force behind all this is concisely expressed in Occam's Razor: it is the search for simplicity, purity, consistency, distinction; it is the urge to clean away the rubbish, shove it outside, keep the field clean.
If we continue to consider the metaphor of the "space between", we may note that it has two aspects. First, as we have said above, the boundary zone is by definition impure, and we constantly try to keep it clean by shoving the garbage off to the sides. But the metaphor may be interpreted in another way as well: as an enclosed space, like a chamber or a room, that we are locked up inside, and from which we are constantly attempting to escape, into purity. Let us now consider this second aspect, the space between as an enclosure, an impure, sinful prison we are confined to and seek to escape. It may be instructive to think of Bateson's (1970a) idea in this context, that interaction always involves one in a cyclical process. He exemplifies this with a man chopping down a tree. The man, Bateson says, does not project his will unilaterally onto the tree, which is thereby felled. The man projects action at the tree, but the tree passes information back to the man again (about its grain, its hardness, its resistance to the axe), and the man passes this information on, through the axe, back to the tree, which communicates with the man through his eyes and hands... and so on. The process is cyclical, not linear. For Bateson, this is a primary attribute of all living systems, of what he calls 'mind'. All our interaction with the world, he asserts, whether with objects, people or concepts, shares this quality.
All action returns to the actor. The metaphor of Western culture as enclosed in an impure room may in this perspective be seen as a sign of being caught in a cyclical process, where our acts always return to us, without being able to accept the inevitability of this state. The return, in the West, is sinful. Feedback is impure. Bateson's circle is our prison. We are "tied to nature". Breaking free, the dream of transcendence, the independence of mind from matter - these are great themes in the West. We want to break the cycle of life and death (this was always the Christian dream), and plummet out of feedback into the Eons, the Universes, unhampered by the world in live in. We externalize ourselves into the world, but won't accept the resulting internalization.
In Western culture, we may conclude, great weight is placed on a specific moral attitude, an ethical ideal. Action, according to this dictum, should be linear, "straightforward", directed from the individual out into the world. Action does not return. The same quality attaches to our perception of time: time is linear and cumulative, we believe in progress, in the inevitable progressive momentum of history (Hall 1984). And this in turn may be related to the "hard front" my Tai Chi teacher remarked on. Our bodies are hard in front, soft behind, because all challenges lie before us: if we clear them out of the way we are never attacked from the rear. We are compelled to act. This is a physical imperative, not an intellectual conviction. The linearity of time and the pure duality from which it springs, are not abstract, "cognitive categories", but concrete, bodily attitudes that we carry with us everywhere we go.
Such an attitude is hardly unproblematic. I should act, I should influence the world, I should take on the hard front, and move linearly forward through space and time. The world, however, is far stronger than I, and if I persist in my hardheadedness to try to conquer it, I will inevitably, sooner or later, be confounded by my own limitations. For this reason, Western history has a simultaneously heroic and tragic character. Time is the stage of a classical drama, where we seek resolution, climax, clarity, the way out... It is a constant struggle between individual and environment.
Historically speaking, this struggle reaches a point of resolution in certain parts of Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Stevenson memorial that I cited at the start of this essay may stand as an icon of that "golden age". The West had brought forth the Individual, with his moral integrity and clear and consistent boundaries toward the world. In fact, this Individual was so firmly constructed that it succeeded in proceeding straight ahead, escaping the closed room, loosing itself from the bonds of matter, conquering the sinful flesh, and realizing the Kingdom of God on Earth... for a moment.
At a certain point in history, we managed to erect the boundaries around ourselves so artfully and exquisitely that it became possible to enact the dream of pure dualism in real life. Before this time, and after it, even an approximate realization of the ideal was impossible, but for a short while, during the few years I refer to as the age of classical Europe, such an approximation was indeed possible... for a limited number of people of a particular social class in particular areas of Europe.
In the following we shall discuss certain aspects of the historical formation of the classical Individual. In each case we examine, we will find a dualism, formally similar to the one I have described above, though concretely expressed in a variety of ways. The premise, which I shall not here attempt to prove, is that the classical dualism was constituted in a series of historical steps, each of which is felt in us even today, as an 'embedded stratum' in body-consciousness.
Embedded Strata - Christianity
We have been discussing two models of the individual, two "modes" in which the individual has appeared historically. This was the contrast I attempted to bring out in the two opening quotes. My main concern, in the following lectures, will be with the implications of the change from one of these models to the other: starting with clear, secure boundaries around one's Self, and then being pulled apart, fragmented, threatened by dissolution. What are the moral and political implications of the fact that the forces that flow in and out of the individual have become stronger than our ability to control them? I want to emphasize that no moral judgment is implied in this: I do not advocate either model of individuality, although I am convinced that the classical model can no longer be realized in practice. The flow of emotion in and out of us is itself morally neutral. My aim is to establish this situation as a point of departure for a further discussion of how the dilemmas of our time should be faced...
Question from the audience:
When you oppose these two conceptions of the individual, isn't it something of a paradox that your own model is dualistic?
No, the model I am suggesting is not dualistic. One concept precedes the other in time: the model is historical. There was one thing before the classical Western individual and another thing after it. At a certain point in history, the classical, balanced individual arose. It was hindered in this by one kind of imbalance before that period and by another today, when the classical era is over. And what was "balanced" or "imbalanced" in each case is what we have referred to as the "space between".
After this discussion, I will sketch the period during which the "space between" was neutralized, brought into "balance"; and how this neutralization ultimately failed in our own century.
While I was in San Francisco, an interesting series of lectures by the American mythologist Joseph Campbell were broadcast on public television (KQED). In one of these lectures, Campbell discussed Christianity and the roots of Western culture, and emphasized the dual underpinnings of this culture. Christianity may be traced back, on the one hand, through Judaism to a more general Middle Eastern and Semitic tradition. On the other hand, its roots go back through Hellenism and the ancient Greeks to the Indo-European tribes that have later inhabited much of Europe. Campbell described Christianity as an amalgam of these two traditions. The Semitic heritage is at its roots a nomadic tradition; we may think of it as similar, in a very general sense, to the culture of present-day Beduin, or groups such as the Fulani, or Central Asian or Persian nomads; and the process of sedentarization that the Jewish nomads underwent may be traced throughout most of the Old Testament. Desert nomads must live frugally and own little, since everything they own must be carried from place to place. As Barth (1971) and Bourdieu (19__) highlight in their analyses of Beduin role management and habitation forms, every object and every person in such a society must be assigned an exact place, or insurmountable conflict will result. Rules are therefore simple, clear, and strictly enforced, for an individual's infraction may mean the difference between life and death for the group. As Campbell sees it, the Semitic resolution of this nomadic dilemma involved a strong insistence on moral consistency, which we see prominently reflected in both Islam and Judaism. These are cultures of the One God; cultures with an absolutist bent, which has entered Christianity as an ideal of pure, unambiguous, universal laws.
On the other hand, Campbell invited his listeners to envision the Indo-European ethos, which was shared by the Celtic and Germanic tribes of pre-Christian Europe. These were shifting cultivators and warriors, and their entire Pantheon reflects this, as we see not only in pre-classical Greek and Vedic mythology, but more recently, among the Vikings of Scandinavia. We recognize a similar flexible and warlike attitude in all of these cosmologies. Where Semitic culture seems to contract around a single focal point, its Indo-European counterpart is expansive. "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt," we are admonished by the Semite Jesus: own few things, and assign to each thing its place. This contrasts dramatically with the outreaching, redistributive Indo-European tribal ethic of conquest and conspicuous consumption. If the Semitic tribes emphasized moral consistency, Indo-European cultures had a more inconsistent and relativistic moral core: as an example, we may consider the Semitic emphasis on patriliny and consistent male authority in contrast to the bilateral kinship patterns that were typically Indo-European. Semitic morality was absolutist, Indo-European morality pragmatic. The Indo-European tribal religions were polytheistic; monotheism is alien to their conception of the world. We may thus speak of an ideal of purity in Islam and Judaism, and in that part Christianity that springs from the Semitic root; and an ideal of discourse, exchange, or mediation that is generically Indo-European - and certainly war (which is a form of mediation) is an integral aspect of this latter ideal.
In Western culture, according to Campbell, these two aspects coexist in uneasy synthesis. Europe has two parallel answers to the problem of living in the world, and these answers are mutually exclusive, not because of any considerations of logic, but because they spring from distinct cultural roots. European culture oscillates continuously between these forms, without ever finding a stable equilibrium. And in this we see the first origins of the dualism I have discussed above: the West wants both purity and discourse simultaneously, and there seems to be no way this paradox can be resolved.
We may now consider some of the solutions to this dilemma that have arisen in the course of history. I shall briefly discuss two examples, just to give a feeling for how varied the responses may be. On the one hand, we have the type of solution typified by Nazism, where the idea is simply to grasp the Semitic aspect of Europe and uproot it. After all, the Semites are “purer” than Christians can ever be. They have one and only one God; one moral code. If Europe had been purely Semitic everything would have been clearer and simpler. So we send the Semites to concentration camps, or bomb Baghdad. This is a good old Western tradition that goes back to the Crusades and further. We do this, I suggest, at least in part, because there is an element in Semitic culture, which we recognize in ourselves - and which for us is highly problematic and ambivalent.
My other example is seemingly of a quite different nature, and gives a more positive image of the West. It may be illustrated by the paradox that occupies such a central place in Christianity: that we have one god, who is also three gods... or perhaps three gods who are actually one; depending on your viewpoint. This has been a dilemma ever since Roman days, and wars have been fought in its name. There is a fundamental question hidden in this paradox of the one god who is really three, a symptom of an underlying instability, a cultural disjointedness that is deeply significant. The cultural response to this situation is instructive: for although there are plenty of examples of one side simply trying to eradicate the other, it is more typical (at least that's how we ourselves like to think of it) that we try to solve the problem with logic. We discuss it. Mediaeval philosophy, for instance, may be read as a continuous discourse on these problems. The art of discussion as a "civilized alternative to war", lies at the heart of the European tradition, and has had a constitutive influence on the Western individual.
In order to discuss, one must learn to separate the general from the specific: a polarization of abstract and concrete categories is thus stimulated, which increases progressively in importance as the centrality of discussion itself increases through history. In a wider context, this polarization is reflected in a concept of the world as resting on the firm foundation of solid, monadic individuality, and overshadowed, on the highest level, by the ideal of a distant, abstract, universal God, who defends the individual's integrity and is ultimately himself conceived of as a kind of super-individual. At society’s base, a multitude of individuals assures the openendedness and pluralism of discourse on the phenomenal plane, while the One Pure God above all guarantees the moral boundaries and paradigmatic consistency, without which multiplexity would degenerate into chaos. But the One God is actually Three. The paradox of the many and the one pursues us on every level of our worldview, and is never successfully neutralized in Christianity. As a result, up through history the godhead is displaced ever further from the concrete, human world and becomes a more and more distant and abstract point of reference, until he finally divests himself of all vestiges of humanity and is reduced to the all-encompassing and depersonalized concept of "natural law" that was the ultimate God of classical Europe at its height. But the displacement toward abstraction continues, and in our day even "natural law" has been shifted so far away from us into realms of relativity and indeterminacy, that we can no longer grasp it. Finally, it would seem, Nietzsche's prophecy of the death of God has come about.
Embedded Strata - Church
This is of course a metaphorical way of speaking about Western history, and though it is important that this overarching perspective is not lost from view in the following, it is not very helpful if we are trying to make sense of history on the more mundane level of economic and political necessity. In order to bridge this gap, we shall turn to the historian Perry Anderson and his pioneering attempt at building a comprehensive, neo-Marxian model of European history as a whole.
The historical dualities discussed above are reflected, in a rather different guise, in Anderson's (1974a, 1974b) theory of the genesis of Europe. Anderson posits that European culture originated in the Early Middle Ages, with the synthesis of ideologies and modes of production derived from the Roman city state on the one hand, and from the Germanic tribal societies on the other. After the fall of Rome, these elements are thrown together in a contradictory tangle, that finds a first, unstable equilibrium in Charlemagne's empire four centuries later. The traditions from Rome are carried on through these intervening years by several institutions, the most important of which was the Catholic Church. The Church, which became an administrative nexus during the last centuries of Roman rule, continues the political traditions from Rome in an increasingly non-Roman society. While the local feudal lords, in the spirit of traditional Germanic tribal chiefdoms, reign supreme in the countryside, the Church remains predominantly urban in its orientation and maintains a centralized, universal bureaucratic structure. The Roman empire (particularly its Western half) was dominated by absentee landowners who lived in the city and derived their values from active participation in urban politics and culture, but whose power base lay in their vast rural estates. This tradition was carried on, during the Middle Ages, by the Church.
Outside the Church, however, feudal lords lived on the land they lived off, and their political and cultural preoccupations were heavily influenced by this fact. The universalizing and centralized Church was juxtaposed to a feudal landholding system, which, as Anderson points out, was fundamentally local in its orientations and politically dispersed. Local feudal lords had overlords, who answered to further levels of lordship on up to the King himself. But this entire structure was inherently fragile, since it was based on an unstable mixture of reciprocity and redistribution on all levels. Every local lord has an autonomous power-base; he is in principle a King, with military, juridical, and economic sovereignty over his underlings. Alliances and counter-alliances constantly undermine the stability of central power. And this inherent instability of the feudal system itself encompasses the fundamentally alien urban organization of the Church and the cities: rival authority structures, of Germanic and Roman origin, thus coexist, overlap, and conflict throughout the fabric of Mediaeval Europe.
In Anderson's description, the resulting instability and fragmentation of power is the key defining characteristic of feudalism, which he sees as a local European social formation, rather than, as in orthodox Marxism, a universal stage of human evolution. On all levels, the same dilemma is encountered: subordinates answer to multiple, diffuse, and contradictory claims to authority, which often, in practice, neutralize each other, thus permitting autonomous local structures of various kinds to survive and develop on their own terms. The most significant case is the Medieval city itself. In Northern Italy, Flanders, and the Baltic, independent urban enclaves survived and flourished, out of reach of central authority. This political and economic situation is uniquely European, and has, as Anderson sees it, had a fundamental formative influence on later European history. Thus, in the Chinese empire, for example, the development outlined above would have been inconceivable: here the centralization of power was more consistent, and urban autonomy was frustrated whenever it threatened to surface. This did not happen in Europe, since European authority structures were too dispersed. In Anderson's analysis, European culture thus has contradictory historical roots, which bifurcate into a strongly fragmented authority structure. Within this structure, power vacuums arise, and within these "lacunae" emerge the uniquely independent European cities.
This discussion has two important implications. First, the incessant dissent and conflict in European history, leads, on the one hand, to the growth of capitalism, to the world market, to whatever cities do when they are allowed to do it full time. Within the market system, discourse may evolve freely, and the ideal (for the sake of trade) is to resolve conflict peacefully. These would seem to be eminent moral ideals, but they have a dark side. Europe is not a closed system. The market system works, but only as long as it projects its waste products, its inner conflicts, into the external world. The external corollary of the internal market, is, as Lenin pointed out, imperialism.
Embedded Strata - Civilization
So, on the one hand, you keep the field clean. You project anything "impure" out of the system. On the other hand, you stimulate discourse, trade, warfare. You start making money, going places, having markets. Capital accumulates, capitalism arises, and all the time, all systemic problems are projected out of the system - as 'imperialism' of one kind or another.
You have to clean the field. You have to maintain discourse. This is very similar to the pattern Campbell describes in his discussion of the Semitic and the Indo-European. Now, however, we are no longer dealing of echoes of distant myths and religions, but with the power and economy of historical social systems. But here again we see how the two factors in the dyadic European equation maintain an extremely unstable equilibrium. The outward projection is not limited to imperialism directed at the Third World. Projection takes place within Europe as well, onto weak groups, groups that cannot or will not participate in the hegemonic discourse: for although this discourse is in principle open to everyone, it is in fact reserved for an elite - the "polite" bourgeoisie. All the side effects of the bourgeoisie's "civilized", class specific discourse were projected onto groups within Europe as well. The poor live off the garbage of the rich. There is inherent violence built into the humanistic European discursive ideal. We see this movement on an international level, where the perpetual dialogue of war, conflict, diplomacy, and intrigue between the European states was released in imperialism.(1) We see it in the economy, where incessant trade slowly sediments into a capitalist, nation-based class system. And we see the same processes within the individual himself.
The ideal of the "pure inner field" implies that one strive to become a conscious, self-disciplined person whose decisions spring from rational, well-understood criteria. But to make the individual "clean" in this sense, all his impurities and ambivalences, everything in him, which he denies as "unreasonable", "tasteless", or "impolite", must be projected out of sight of waking, bourgeois consciousness, into unconsciousness and the body. We are back with my Tai Chi teacher's "hard front".
The third author I would like to discuss is Jürgen Habermas. In Bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit, Habermas describes that point in history, when the European configuration suddenly finds equilibrium, and the paradoxes we have been discussing are resolved; when suddenly it became possible to realize everything that had until then been only ideals. This is classical Europe, the Europe of the bourgeoisie. This is also the Europe we often mean, when we speak of our sub-continent as a culture area. What we mean is not the European Middle Ages, nor even the reign of Louis XIV; it is humanistic Europe, bourgeois Europe, polite Europe, democratic Europe. Classical Europe is the heroic age of European greatness; and it is the heaviest 'embedded stratum' of all to bear today. For classical Europe is not our own age, even when think (as we often do) that "humanism" is reincarnated in it.
In the classical age, everything "finds its place" for a moment. Exactly when this moment begins, is a little dependent on where you see it from, but on the whole, it may have started some time around the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth century, and lasted two or three hundred years. At places, it may have lasted only fifty years, and some places never experienced it all, it was only an echo or an ideal. But for a few generations and for certain social groups in Western Europe, classical Europe was a social reality, and it is this reality that Habermas describes.
First he discusses the system's genesis. One of its primary preconditions was the existence of economically independent actors, who are able to make long-term choices and dispose of their capital without interference from traditional authorities, such as the extended family, the guilds, the king. The precondition for this, in turn, was private property, i.e. that every economically independent actor have an economic base that is inaccessible to society at large. The "actors" in question are men. Around these men, minimal groups are formed, not extended families, whose internal authority structure is too complex to satisfy the demand that independent private property be immediately accessible to its owner. This is the nuclear family: a man, his wife, the children. A microscopic individualistic unit, within which a number of moral ideals gradually take shape, which in turn presuppose the idea that we are all "simply human". We are all people with emotions and sincerity, who experience intimacy, and who, as "simply human", have a "true Self" that may be "free". We discover "depths" in ourselves, from which we can communicate our "true emotions" to others. The morality of the nuclear family, of the "private sphere", thus implies one kind of "purity".
But we should remember that most of the men around which this entire edifice is built are (both in fact and in principle) petty capitalists and entrepreneurs. They do not lead their entire life within the nuclear family. They are out there, realizing themselves and their assets, much of the time. And while they are out, they meet and talk, they discuss society and culture and life (Habermas has wonderful passages on the coffee-houses, salons, and Bierstuben where many of these conversations took place). In the course of this dialogue (which echoes long-gone dialogues of Pope and King, nomads and shifting agriculturalists) the bourgeoisie slowly reached agreement on certain fundamental issues. They agreed, for example, that a market system is dependent on definite and consistent rules. One needs, in other words, a differentiated and stable jural system. One cannot tolerate the self-seeking and arbitrary whims of kings. If society needs authority (which it definitely does), it must be rational, predictable, accountable. And to ensure this, the rules must be universal, i.e. equally applicable to all citizens. Only thus can all "actors" live securely in their nuclear families. Only thus can they be economically independent: if they and their families are protected by guarantees that are impersonal and impartial. So here, in the public sphere, the ideal of another kind of "purity" arises. In the private sphere, we found a "free", "intimate", "sincere", "simply human" purity. In public, the idea of purity is formal, universal, impersonal. We are all free, "simply human". But at the same time, this means that we are all equal as well, in the sense that we are equal before the law. It is in the nuclear family that the unique and unrepeatable character of every individual is developed and expressed. Here we are all different. But in public, we are all the same; it is our equality that is brought out. Strictly speaking, this is a contradiction, but since its constituting terms are projected into separate social spheres and arenas (private and public), it is effectively neutralized and "balanced". Classical European discourse takes place on the borderline between these two spheres. It is the discourse between two purities. The purities "frame" the discourse, they are its paradigmatic terms.
Question from the audience:
I don't quite understand what the idea of discourse is doing here...
At this stage in Europe, discourse is, on the one hand, that people trade with each other: it comprises all the economic transactions that this society is built up around. On the other hand, it is a discourse of political rhetoric and legitimacy (which gradually develops into democracy, for example), that is based on interaction between the two ideals of purity: the "simply human being" that is authentically and uniquely himself, and his public counterpart, who is equal before all his peers. These are the cornerstones of democracy. Finally, there is a third, cultural discourse, which we know e.g. through classical literature, art, and music. Habermas is very conscious of this cultural aspect of discourse, and it is easy to understand why. It is this that makes classical Europe so attractive to us, in spite of the many "bestialities" (as Jens Bjørneboe puts it) that it has caused as well.
The naked and the clothed individual; femininity and masculinity; the private and the public sphere: the harmonization of these ideals was very nearly realized in classical Europe; and it is the existence of such a neutral "balance" that permits the stable and harmonious unfolding of discourse.
One speaks a language that is simultaneously personal and impersonal. Everything you say has universal implications, no matter how particularly it is meant.
A way has been found to be both Semitic and Indo-European simultaneously, to be both Roman and Germanic, god-like and human, urban and rural, triune and one. There has been a sudden release from impurity.
We are back at the point where we started. It has become possible to live according to the classical ideals of individualism, as proclaimed on the memorial to Robert Lewis Stevenson in San Francisco. The tension of the "space between" has been released.
We have burst out of the "room" that Bateson found us in; out of enclosure, out of our prison; where our acts always returned to us - with vengeance. Suddenly, our acts can no longer return: because we stand between two purities. We are suspended in a zone of discourse between two purities, and as long as we participate in it, everything we do can simply be projected straight out in front of us into the empty void.
We can be fundamentalists and relativists without contradiction. It is a wonderful system, it works perfectly... but only as long as it retains a precarious state of poised equilibrium, and this, as we shall see, is the problem.
There are at least two fundamental contradictions in the classical system, which in the long run cannot be ignored. The first has to do with "freedom". On the one hand, freedom implies the values of privacy: spontaneous self-expression, emotional intimacy, and so on. But in public, freedom means that one must be reserved and formal. These are widely differing modes of relating to the world. An actor can only alternate between the two incessantly and flexibly, if there are clear and unambiguous boundaries between the arenas and spheres of relevance to which each action-type pertains, which signal, to the actor that he must now switch from one mode (or "role") to the other. If the public-private boundary is disturbed or distorted, it becomes very hard to know what "freedom" should imply in any concrete situation. And as soon as one starts acting spontaneously and intimately in public, or reserved and formal in private, the system's integrity is fundamentally challenged (a typical image of this is a divorce). The other contradiction has to do with the classical European claims to universality. We are all "simply human". But we are "all" male bourgeois entrepreneurs as well, "men of independent means", owners of private property. This latter dilemma is discussed by Habermas, but, to my mind, very incompletely. He tends to romanticize classical Europe, as we all very easily do. And so he sees the problem, but not its full implications.
As long as the public and private spheres are kept separate, as long as individuality unfolds within the "bounds" of society, a rational, civilized discourse can take place, and all impurity and sin can be projected out of it. This is what is expressed e.g. in the classical European ideal of America, as the land of possibility. In this ideal country, you can simply drop your trash where you're standing, and go on, further West, rolling across the Prairie, and wherever you stop you can stake your claim on a blank slate. America was free because it was uninhabited (at least as far as classical Europe was concerned), it was a mythical realm where you could just continue straight on indefinitely. Clean the field. Move on for ever, into the ever young, the fresh, the new. And civilize it.
The crucial point to remember, however, is that the "universal" classical European equilibrium, even at its height, was maintained only locally, and for a fairly short period of time. It is of the greatest importance to emphasize this: the humanistic values that we identify as "Western" and "European", and which we tend so easily to equate with the good of all mankind, are in fact the product of a fairly short historical period that occurred only once, and only in certain parts of Europe, and which we have by now left behind us.
Habermas' explanation of the dissolution of the classical world is that it results from the system's internal dynamics. We seek consistency, but there is a basic inconsistency between the public and private realms. Freedom is for all equally, we are told; and we are all simply human, aside from those humans, of course, that are not males of independent means. But according to Habermas, the bourgeois males themselves see through this contradiction, and in the long run cannot tolerate it, since their entire ethos is based on logical consistency. Hence, the bourgeoisie gradually starts opening up; "common people" are by degrees admitted to the comfort of our discreet bourgeois smoking rooms. The ballot is expanded, slowly at first, and then all at once, universally, and the civilized bourgeois class is drowned in the masses of proletarians and housewives that trample all over the discursive field, ignoring the rules of "fair play". Bourgeois discourse presupposes that its participants are educated and able to agree on basic questions. When masses of people with fundamentally different interests enter this field, the rational order of discourse is upset. The clear-cut distinction between public and private spheres can no longer be maintained; the contradiction between them, which that distinction neutralized, can no longer be controlled. Discourse erupts into open conflict between equality and freedom, justice and intimacy, the impersonal and the personal.
Economic, political and cultural discourse is destabilized and threatens to mutate into war, indeed, it does mutate into major European wars twice in our own century. It is a truism today that the erratic and unpredictable power of this discourse must be controlled; its classical freedom contained.
In the course of the last hundred years or so, we have seen a slow and partial socio-cultural adaptation to and acceptance of these changes. We have evolved mass media, mass organizations, mass production. The public sphere in contemporary society is controlled. We have evolved into a society where discourse is no longer restricted to a small minority; but where things also do not function with anything near the smooth harmony of the classical age.
This is more or less how Habermas sees the changes that have occurred in the twentieth century, and I am able to agree with him quite a ways, but I believe that what he describes is only, so to speak, the tip of the iceberg, and that the transformation is in fact much deeper and more general. The problem, I posit, is that the classical European equilibrium can only be maintained if "the field" is constantly swept clean and all impurity projected out of it. But what we throw away does not disappear. When we exclude it from culture, from the nation-state, from consciousness, it sinks into the unconscious, the body, the underclass, the Third World, and ultimately, into nature. For all its rationality and common sense, classical Europe had no adequate grasp of these aspects of reality.
To continue the metaphor, what caused the demise of the classical order was that the peripheries, into which we had projected all our trash, finally started filling up. Outside the clean, "inner field" problems were accumulating, and under their pressure, the distinctions between inside and outside, us and them, began to blur, and finally collapsed altogether. Our acts returned to us. In the long run, all linear time sequences turn out to be cyclical. This is where we stand today. We are experiencing a massive invasion from the outside world, which our barriers can no longer keep out. The walls around Europe, around the nation state, around the bourgeoisie, around rationality, around the individual, are all affected by this movement. The barriers are falling. There is much talk today about building dams to keep the rising ocean out as a compensation for the greenhouse effect. There is renewed interest in Hitler's idea of a Festung Europa as a compensation for the results of colonialism in the Third World. Self-defense courses and neighborhood watches are designed to keep an increasingly anomic and alien wave of criminality at bay.
And as our garbage has returned to us during the twentieth century, from nature and society, from the body and the unconscious, a new and uglier Europe is revealed. Hitler is of course the prototype of this, but later developments are no less illustrative of my point. It no longer seems self-evident that European civilization is the prototype of humanism and good will toward men. Previously this illusion could be maintained, since we still had the power to keep the inner field under control, though everything was out of control outside that field. Now our grip on the inner field itself has weakened, since the barriers are down, the old categories have been exploded from within, invaded from without.
This is the underlying reality behind the two quotes we started out with. The reasonable rationality of the memorial to Robert Lewis Stevenson has been replaced by a paranoid sense of being "a public view", having lost control over one's own privacy. We know intuitively that the barriers are down; there is simply too much stuff out there pressing for admittance; and when we no longer can defend ourselves effectively against it, we start spitting back at it in sheer impotence and spite... After all, we are still Europeans. We cannot tolerate this affront to our dignity.
I shall very briefly indicate some central features of this transition. First, to locate it in time, I suggest that change starts accelerating noticeably around the 1880s, when the Great Depression wracked the incipient world economy. This, one might say, is the beginning of the end. A lot of seemingly disconnected developments come to a point at around this time. There is a revolution in the visual arts, for example. Classical art strived for "realism", for a neutral and objective, mirror-like representation of an object "out there"; this is in perfect consonance with the ideal purities of the bourgeoisie. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, artists started taking a much closer look at "reality" itself, and it dissolved in front of their eyes, into impressionism. The visual world flickered and blurred before their eyes; and the more intently they focused on it, the more it dimmed into textures and particles, just as the theory of relativity decomposed matter itself at about the same time.
Visual "reality" dissolved when the artists examined it closely. But when they approach the world too closely, they suddenly seem to fall straight through it and emerge on the other side. And as they turn around, they see the world "from behind", and a phantasmagoric, abstracted imagery is revealed: cubism, expressionism, surrealism, are early expressions of this inversion. Visual esthetics have passed through the world. They have undergone a paradigmatic shift, a "turning inside-out" of reality.
These esthetic changes were symptoms of a more deep-going social transformation, the wider implications of which have become increasingly obvious throughout the twentieth century. First, the European political system was annihilated by the First World War, and with it, the clear distinction between center and periphery within Europe itself: between the modernized, industrialized Western center, and the rural, raw material producing European East. The small, homogenous national states of the West confront the large, multiethnic Eastern states; and Russia, Austro-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire fall apart into bits and pieces. Germany is particularly interesting, since it is the border state par excellence, it is a constant focus of turbulence, since it lies on this boundary, just as the Berlin Wall is this boundary.
In response to this, the colonial empires dissolved, and the international dominance of Britain, France, and Germany was broken. These crises were precipitated by the First and Second World Wars, and as a result, basic changes were brought about within the European states themselves, the most important of which was the steadily increasing power of the state over society. A multitude of administrative functions and procedures were institutionalized, reaching directly from the public sphere into privacy: to control and monitor our movements by means of census registration and taxation, universal schooling and television. The free discourse between public and private spheres is replaced by vast systems of semiotic control. The good citizens of the Victorian age would have been horrified at the degree of public hegemony in our own age. On the other hand, the opposite movement also takes place: private individuals step into the "public view", baring their "naked" personalities and bodies before the world, "crying in your secret part": in media, rhetoric, commercials. These are general, long-term trends, which the various "emancipations" of the 1960s merely typify.
We see an internal widening and strengthening of the functions of government to the point were every nation state is in effect run as a monolithic commercial enterprise on a par with the largest multinational corporations; and a concomitant external weakening of the traditional international independence of the nation, through integration in multinational organizations and networks.
To appreciate the true depth and scope of all these movements, one should, I think, try to read Michel Foucault's (1975) book on the European prison system as a complement to Habermas, and remind oneself that they are actually writing about the same historical period. While Habermas describes the center, and, to some degree, idealizes it, Foucault discusses a periphery, one of the places that the center has projected its garbage into, and from which, in our age, the results of this projection return to haunt us (Foucault's book is itself an aspect of this return). Habermas' distinction between public and private spheres is in this perspective too simple: it misleads us to think that there is only one dualism that constitutes classical Europe. But, as we have seen, there many other dualisms as well, that have been embedded on each other up through history. We have referred to three of these above as 'Christianity', 'Church', and 'Civilization', and it is implicit in our discussion, that these categories are in fact strata of bodily memory, though the arguments for each case must be expanded elsewhere (cf. Nielsen, forthcoming). But aside from this historical dimension, our discussion has revealed a dimension of universality: the classical dualism and the space between recur on all levels of complexity and scale. First, there is the opposition between the individual himself and the external world. This is surrounded by the dyad of the public and private spheres, arenas between which many individuals move. This dualism is in turn encompassed by a wider (primarily economic) discourse between bourgeoisie and underclass, which forms a third axis of polarization. The bourgeoisie-and-underclass synthesis itself, forms a nation within the Western European system, which, as center, stands opposed to the European peripheries of Eastern Europe, that are parts of a European meta-system. Outside Europe lies the rest of the human world; outside society lies nature. In each case, absolute oppositions define a pure, inner field, in relation to an impure outer field, into which it externalizes itself.
When this vast edifice starts to crumble in our own century, one polarization draws the other after it, in a complex, interwoven, torrential movement. The logical, material, and social foundations of the local, classical European order are being destroyed all around us, and transformed into something new, a post-European world order, a post-European culture inhabited by post-European individuals.
All this casts a somewhat unexpected light on the events of our own day. The fall of the Berlin wall, for example, was just another example of the collapsing defenses of the inner field. The differences between Eastern and Western Europe are not eliminated with the removal of the Wall. All that has happened is that two sub-systems, two spheres have penetrated through to each other. We were no longer able to keep them apart.
(1) To appreciate the power of this projection, it must be considered that two world wars resulted from the sudden cessation of European imperialism, at the end of the nineteenth century.